Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


 The school year’s final youth dance at Little Falls Presbyterian Church came off last Friday night without scandal. Nor, I’m guessing, were there too many bruised pre-teen feelings that won’t heal with passage of time.

The church’s annual gift to the community of nine monthly middle school dances has been going on for some 20 years in its “current stretch,” I was told by its pastor, the Rev. Dr. Matt Merrill. But many of us locals recall an array of such dances during the 1960s. A source of junior high drama.

Churches put on dances for many reasons: as a good deed; to make use of idle facilities, to get kids off the street; and to keep the church alive as an institution teens can belong to.

“We provide a fun and safe environment for middle-schoolers,” Merrill says of the 400-plus action-seekers whose parents’ cars can be seen snaking down the block for the 7:00- 9:30 event. Coordinator Dave Wilson plays recorded music with any vulgar language excised and creates nifty lighting effects.

There are scant problems with drugs, alcohol or violence, the pastor says, recalling only one minor scuffle between two boys, which was broken up by two hired off-duty cops. They’re aided by a dozen volunteer chaperones.

The sex issue is trickier. “We’ve worked hard to lock down the church,” Merrill says, but “dance styles continue to change and today can be pretty sexual.” A poster the kids find amusing reads, “Dance with someone, not on them.”

My older daughter (now grown) hit the Little Falls dance floor in the late 1990s and recalls the scene as cool. “But people danced inappropriately to rap music, which was weird with all these church people walking around.”

My younger daughter remembers being “an envious fly on the wall, eating stale pretzels and shooting Dixie cups of Safeway brand cola, hoping some shaggy-haired skater boy would notice me.”

I have my own lurid memories of Little Falls dances, those discontinued in the ’60s, Merrill believes, after more teens got their own cars. While thrilling to crossing the room from the boys’ to the girls’ side for my first slow dance, I heard embryonic Arlington bands with names like the Cornerstones and Mother Murdoch’s Marvelous Array of Animated Art.

On a grimmer night, the rescue squad rushed in to pump the stomach of a kid (name withheld) who’d consumed a fifth of the hard stuff.

We danced at other churches too, most of them white-dominated. (Black churches didn’t hold dances, the kids preferring friends’ basements, a classmate tells me.)

At St. Peters, fellow Williamsburg students and I were accosted by some unfamiliar toughs who puzzled us by asserting that Williamsburgers were “a bunch of [unprintable].” POW! came their fists. We ran home and told the biggest dad in our circle, but he had no way of finding them.

At St. Andrews, “The Hangmen,” an area band with a national hit (“What a Girl Can’t Do)” drew thousands pouring out onto Lorcom Lane.

My own church, St. George’s, hosted lesser-known groups but filled its parish hall with kids from, ahem, different high schools.

This notion of “outsiders” may have been the reason that St. Mary’s, if memory serves, had to cease holding dances after too many fights.

But Little Falls presses on, helping kids make memories, which last. 


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at cclarkjedd@aol.com